The Big Ideas

'Like It Or Not, America Is Still A Superpower'

Foreign Affairs

Robert Kagan | Brookings
'Like It Or Not, America Is Still A Superpower'
'Like It Or Not, America Is Still A Superpower'
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The Price of Misjudging America: The Carcasses of Countries That Misjudged the United States

February 18, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘The twentieth century was littered with the carcasses of foreign leaders and governments that misjudged the United States, from Germany (twice) and Japan to the Soviet Union to Serbia to Iraq. Perhaps the Chinese, careful students of history that they are, will not make the mistake that others have made in misjudging the United States.’

Each week I read dozens of essays about China and foreign policy.

  • But I rarely come across one I have enjoyed as much as ‘A Superpower, Like It or Not’ by Robert Kagan.
  • Equal parts a review of the state of foreign affairs, a study of U.S’s role in the world, a warning to adversaries (this means you, China), an analysis of the American psyche, and a scolding to my country folks – there is so much that I had to divide into six posts in ‘The Big Ideas’ stream.

Here’s one part: ‘Americans’ continental view of the world has produced a century of wild oscillations—indifference followed by panic, mobilization and intervention followed by retreat and retrenchment.’

  • ‘This on-again, off-again approach has confused and misled allies and adversaries, often to the point of spurring conflicts that could have been avoided by a clear and steady application of American power and influence in the service of a peaceful, stable, and liberal world order.’

‘The twentieth century was littered with the carcasses of foreign leaders and governments that misjudged the United States, from Germany (twice) and Japan to the Soviet Union to Serbia to Iraq.’

  • ‘Perhaps the Chinese, careful students of history that they are, will not make the mistake that others have made in misjudging the United States.’

On the same theme: ‘Today, in an era when the United States is said to be dangerously overextended, there are roughly 200,000 U.S. troops deployed overseas, out of a population of 330 million.’

  • ‘Setting aside whether this constitutes “lazily playing with a fraction” of American strength, it is important to recognize that the United States is now in peace mode.’
  • ‘Were Americans to shift to a war footing, or even a Cold War–type footing, in response to some Chinese action—for instance, an attack on Taiwan—the United States would look like a very different animal.’

‘At the height of the late Cold War, under President Ronald Reagan, the United States spent six percent of GDP on defense, and its arms industry produced weapons in such quantity and of such quality that the Soviets simply could not keep up.’

  • ‘The Chinese could find themselves in a similar predicament.’

And speaking of President Reagan, whether you liked his policies or not, after Vietnam, Watergate, the failed Iranian hostage rescue, violent racial discrimination, and the other seemingly never-ending disasters the U.S. had been through, Mr. Reagan gave us Americans the ‘shining city on a hill’ and the confidence that we were an unconquerable force for good in the world.

  • Right or not in his assessments, Dr. Kagan’s essay exudes that same sort of optimism – certainly welcome to Americans, anyway, today.
BIG IDEA | ‘The danger is that as Beijing ramps up efforts to fulfill what it has taken to calling “the Chinese dream,” Americans will start to panic. It is In times like this that miscalculations are made.’

This essay is a best of the best - terrific!

‘Americans are torn between these two impulses.’

  • ‘On the one hand, China now occupies that place in the American mind that Germany and the Soviet Union once held: an ideological opponent that has the ability to strike at American society directly and that has power and ambitions that threaten the United States’ position in a key region and perhaps everywhere else, too.’
  • ‘On the other hand, many Americans believe that the United States is in decline and that China will inevitably come to dominate Asia.’

‘Indeed, the self-perceptions of the Americans and the Chinese are perfectly symmetrical.’

  • ‘The Chinese think that the United States’ role in their region for the past 75 years has been unnatural and is therefore transient, and so do the Americans.'
  • ‘The Chinese believe that the United States is in decline, and so do many Americans.’

‘The danger is that as Beijing ramps up efforts to fulfill what it has taken to calling “the Chinese dream,” Americans will start to panic.’

  • ‘It is in times like this that miscalculations are made.’